Library Assistant at Royston Library, former school librarian and avid reader of books.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce (Adult choice)
This is a love story. A love story between a man and his music and between a man and a woman, Frank and Ilse Brauchmann.
Frank has a Music Shop on Unity Street, a street which also has a tattoo parlour, a shop selling religious souvenirs, an undertakers’, a baker’s and a pub. The street has seen better days but the shop owners and the residents help each other and there is a strong sense of community.
Frank sells all types of music; jazz, classical, pop, punk, anything as long as it’s on vinyl. He loves helping people and has a talent for recognising the music his customers need but he is a purist and will not sell cassettes or CDs.
When Ilse Brauchmann faints outside his shop Frank is smitten but also puzzled because Ilse has no music. She is silent. After their first meeting, she comes back to the shop on occasions, disrupting Frank’s single lifestyle, but really trying to help him combat the threat from the high street shops selling cheap CDs. When Ilse asks for music lessons Frank does not know what to do. She has told him she is engaged to be married and Frank is stubbornly single, but music is Frank’s life and soon he is introducing her to different composers and artists and sharing his passion with her.
Unity Street is falling down and the residents and shopkeepers gradually succumb to the enticements of Fort Developments who want to redevelop the area. Frank hangs on but business is declining and a fire in the shop is the last straw for Frank. He has helped so many people through his music but, the question is, will he let anyone help him?
I love Rachel Joyce’s style of writing. In this book each chapter is headed by a song as the story is told through music. There are loud, joyful passages and quiet, despairing passages and the tension builds as the piece moves towards its finale.
Rachel Joyce’s other books include the more well known ‘Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, but ‘The Music Shop’ remains my favourite of her books so far.
The Lido by Libby Page (Adult choice)
It is perhaps cruel to review a book about a lido when most outdoor pools have been closed this summer. Perhaps we will all appreciate them more when more normal times return.
Rosemary is eighty six years old. She has lived all her life in Brixton and has seen many changes there. Local shops have become cocktail bars and even the library where Rosemary worked has closed. The local lido, however, has been with her through all the changes and remains a constant in her life. She has swum there practically every day of her life, even during the war. She still swims there every day, enjoying the relief that being in the water gives her from the aches and pains of growing older. When she hears the lido is to close and become part of a luxury residential development she decides she must try to save it.
Kate is a young journalist working for the local paper. She came to London with hopes of an exciting new life but, in reality, she is alone and lonely. Her work is unexciting and her social life non-existent. One morning, Kate is given the task of reporting on the closure of the lido and this brings her into contact with Rosemary. Before she knows what has happened Kate is heavily involved in the fight to save the lido.
The Lido is a story of friendship between generations, old helping young and young helping old. It is the story of a community coming together to take on a big development company.
It was listening to Libby Page at a book event in Letchworth where I first heard the term ‘up lit’, uplifting literature. The Lido is an excellent example of ‘up lit’. It leaves you with a good feeling. It also leaves you wanting to know more about the characters after the book ends but that is a gap that only your imagination can fill.
The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson (1981) (Young Adult)
I make no excuse for choosing this unashamedly romantic book to review. ‘The Secret Countess’ is a traditional rags to riches story (although this one starts with riches as well) with numerous misunderstandings along the way. Eva Ibbotson is well known for her great books for younger children (‘The Secret of Platform 13’, ‘Journey to the River Sea’ and ‘The Star of Kazan’) but, perhaps, less known for her young adult books which are equally good in my view.
The book begins in St Petersburg at the time of the First World War and, subsequently, the Russian Revolution. Anna, a young countess, enjoys a privileged lifestyle which comes to an abrupt end when her family have to flee Russia and find refuge in England. Their jewels are entrusted to their nanny who disappears with them, so life is hard for the family without their wealth. Anna decides she must do something to help and takes a job as a temporary housemaid. Her employers are uncertain. They can see that she is well-bred, but they need staff and Anna promises to work hard.
Anna is good and kind and everyone likes her, both below and above stairs. She manages her work well but things do not go quite to plan when the new Earl of Westerholme returns home, followed by his bride-to-be. Muriel is a rich, grocer’s daughter, whose money will save the household. She has a passion for eugenics (as did Hitler) and she soon makes her presence felt in the house and not in a pleasant way.
Eva Ibbotson’s main characters are always very down to earth, even if they are very rich, and Anna is no exception to this. She is accomplished at making the best of everything life throws at her and, Eva Ibbotson, great storyteller that she is, expertly pulls all the threads of the story together to bring it to a very satisfactory end.
Despite its talk of war and eugenics, not the most pleasant of subjects, ‘The Secret Countess’ is pure escapism and we all need a little of that sometimes.
Holes by Louis Sachar (1998) (Young Adult)
When Stanley Yelnats is charged with the theft of Clyde Livingston’s trainers he blames his dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great grandfather. At his court hearing, instead of going to jail, Stanley chooses to serve his sentence at Camp Greenlake Correctional Facility for boys. He is innocent but his parents cannot afford a lawyer so he has no choice but to accept his fate. He has never been to camp but the reality of Camp Greenlake is very different from his expectations. For a start, there is no lake, the camp is located in the middle of a barren desert and the boys interned there are required to dig a hole every day, 5 feet deep and five feet wide, measured using their shovels. Stanley soon realises they are searching for something but he does not know what. The first few holes are hard to dig but Stanley gradually gets used to the work, losing weight and becoming fitter in the process.
He befriends a silent boy called Zero and agrees to teach him to read so when Zero runs away Stanley hatches a plan to go after him and bring him back. No one can survive for more than a few days in the desert and Zero has no water with him.
Holes also goes back in time to tell the story of famous highwaywoman Kissing Kate Barlow and her link with Stanley’s family. Are the holes the boys dig linked to Kissing Kate Barlow and what is the mystery of God’s thumb which Stanley has heard so much about from his family and can now see staring at him from the top of a mountain?
Holes is written as a story within a story, something which I really enjoy in a book. It also approaches subjects such as race and poverty in a sensitive way. It was a set book in schools for many years and I hope that this will not put young people off reading it because it is a great book. It is a book I can return to time and again and always find something new.
The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (2019) (Age 8-12)
I read ‘The House with Chicken Legs’ by Sophie Anderson and did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would but when a class of Year 4s came to visit the library and told me about ‘The Girl Who Speaks Bear’ by the same author, they were so enthusiastic that I thought I must try it. They were not wrong as I thoroughly enjoyed this magical tale set in rural Russia.
It is a fantasy story told as a story in its own right but also told through other shorter fireside stories which weave their way through the book.
Yanka was found as a toddler in the forest outside a bear cave and taken in by Mamochka who raises her as her own. At the age of 12 Yanka is twice the size of all the other children and struggling to fit into the village where she lives. The forest is calling her. So, when she grows bear legs one night, she abandons the village and sets off into the forest to find out who she is.
A dark forest, friends in peril and a beast which must be slain, the book contains all the best features of a fairy story. As Yanka travels through the forest, with only her friend Anatoly’s map to guide her, she comes face to face with her past and makes new friends along the way. Together they must succeed where adults have previously failed if she is to finally find her place in the world.
Anatoly says throughout the book, ‘there is truth in my stories’ but it is only as you read through that you realise the importance of the fireside stories so you mustn’t cheat and skip over them!
I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) (Age 8-12)
I loved ‘The Secret Garden’ as a child and, even as an adult, I have reread it more than once so, knowing that there was a new film version being made, I decided to revisit it before watching the film.
Selfish, arrogant Mary Lennox has grown up in India being spoilt by her servants and ignored by her parents. At the age of nine she finds herself abandoned by servants and parents alike as cholera strikes her household and, as a result, she is sent to live with her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor, a house deep in the Yorkshire Moors. At Misslethwaite she is left to her own devices and expected to amuse herself. This, together with the cold winter, is quite a shock to a small child used to the warmth of India and to being waited on hand and foot. Mary is an extremely unpleasant child to begin with but her tantrums have little effect on the staff at Misselthwaite so she just has to get used to her new situation. She does this by trying to find the secret garden she has heard servants talking about. A garden which was locked when her uncle’s young wife died and has remained that way ever since. As Mary spends more time outside searching for the garden she becomes stronger and healthier. When a friendly robin finally helps her find the garden she is thrilled and bringing the garden back to life brings her new happiness and new friends and makes her a much more pleasant person
But there is another mystery at Misslethwaite. There is a corridor in the house where she must not go and strange noises during the night which nobody will explain. As more secrets of the house are uncovered and the garden works its healing magic on others around Mary, winter relents and spring and summer come to Misselthwaite.
I loved the original film and am looking forward to the new one but the book will always remain the favourite for me.